Barcelona hosted Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou in their final fixture in September.
The hosts came into the game in an unusual and precarious situation. Not only did they fail to win their previous two La Liga matches but their form lacked nearly everything one would expect from this team. More importantly, they lacked the chemistry that rivals have revered for years. Barca needed a convincing win to breathe a sigh of relief and relieve the mounting pressure.
Athletic Bilbao had also felt the early season pressure, to an extent more than what Barca were feeling before the game. Bilbao are currently in the midst of another relegation battle. Last season, they were able to survive relegation with a 16th place finish. Like Leganes did on Wednesday, Bilbao were hoping to pull off a massive win that could jumpstart a new beginning for the team this season. Whether it would be Raul Garcia or Inaki Williams, Bilbao needed a hero that would lead them to their biggest win of the year.
The biggest storyline before the game was manager Ernesto Valverde’s decision to rotate players for the third straight game. Clement Lenglet, Arturo Vidal and Nelson Semedo started while Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets began the game on the bench. Samuel Umtiti was not included in the squad due to injury.
Just from the look of the starting lineup, there was plenty to take away as to how Barca would approach the game. Semedo would receive another opportunity in the right back role. Lenglet, who will presumably start against Tottenham on Wednesday, started next to Pique in the hope of building up chemistry in defense. It looked as if Ivan Rakitic would get another trial as a central defensive midfielder while Sergi Roberto, who had struggled playing as a right central midfielder, would likely play the position again but both tactics were not implemented by Valverde. More importantly, Philippe Coutinho would be experimented as a left winger while Ousmane Dembele moved to the right in the absence of Messi.
No Messi to start the game meant that the team would have to rely on someone else to step up when it came to creating multiple goal-scoring chances in the attacking third as he has done so per game this season.
To begin, Valverde still kept the same 4-3-3 setup but he experimented with a couple of new components in the hope of improving play in the attacking third. The midfield of Rakitic, Roberto and Vidal would play together for the first time this season, which is evidently a risky move from Valverde. Roberto played as a central defensive midfielder in place of Busquets while Rakitic moved to the left side of the pitch. If Valverde was focused on resting Busquets, Arthur would have been the preferred player to play as a CDM but the manager elected to try something new instead.
See here the positioning of Barca’s midfield, which they kept throughout the first half.
Roberto’s role as a central defensive midfielder would see him play deeper than he would as a right central midfielder. He was tasked with heavy defensive responsibilities such as marking players and intercepting passes while also striving to maintain possession.
The one important part that Sergi would also play is dropping deep to provide support for both Lenglet and Pique when in possession. See here how Sergi moves in between the two centre-backs to provide a passing link with Lenglet or to cover for him if he decided to move higher up the pitch.
The addition of Vidal was a pivotal decision as his ability to play as a box-to-box midfielder would add a new dimension to Barca’s midfield considering the Rakitic and Roberto tandem have shown to be limited to an extent in both the attack and when defending.
Bilbao countered with a 4-2-3-1 formation with the speedy Inaki Williams playing the role of a free-roaming striker. Aritz Aduriz has traditionally held this role but, considering he is coming off of an injury coupled with Williams’ speed in counter-attacks, Bilbao manager Eduardo Berizzo decided that it was best to roll out Williams instead.
Early in the game, Bilbao surprisingly were able to maintain a good amount of possession and even get off a couple of promising shots but they were unable to sustain this due to Barca’s high press. Barca were moving much more than usual to press Bilbao. Their press was not highly aggressive but rather effective. Suarez was even involved in pressuring Bilbao to quickly release the ball or to retreat to their own defensive half. The best among the bunch was Vidal as his tendency to quickly drift across the field put Bilbao in uncomfortable situations.
See this entire sequence on how Vidal pressures a Bilbao player twice and is influential in forcing them to retreat into their own defensive half.
On this play, in what is emblematic of his playstyle, Vidal tracks Williams in the box and his positioning helps him in not letting Williams even get a shot off. Vidal’s ability to recognize a play as it unfolds and quickly react to it is what made him an influential player in the first half.
In effect, much of Barca’s best attacks came from quick counters due to their ability to win the ball back after pressing. But while they were strong early in pressing and defending, this did not translate to effective goal-scoring chances.
Throughout the first half, Barca, as usual, maintained possession for long periods at a time but could not muster up promising opportunities in the attacking third. When Valverde elected for this setup, the hope was for Coutinho and Dembele to have much more freedom as wingers on the left and right respectively but that was not the case.
One notable weakness was the production on the left flank. In the Leganes fixture, this was almost nonexistent for the majority of the game due to Valverde’s decision to start Vermaelen as a left back. This time around, Valverde’s decision to start Rakitic and put him on the left devalued Coutinho and Alba’s ability to use their pace to dominate play on the left flank and cut into the box. As mentioned before in previous tactical breakdowns, Barca lack team chemistry on the left flank when one of Alba, Coutinho or Dembele is not positioned there.
See here how Coutinho and Alba link up on the left while they each move into open space but the play collapses with no support from Rakitic, who is positioned back alongside Roberto.
On this play, Rakitic completely misses a trailing Alba and instead, attempts a pass to Roberto. If Rakitic passed it to Alba, he would have multitudes of space in front to attract Bilbao defenders and potentially create a goal-scoring chance.
Rakitic is typically accustomed to playing on the right as a conservative controller that prioritizes short passes without much off-ball movement. This essentially created an imbalance on the left flank that deteriorated one of Barca’s biggest strengths. Coutinho was forced to play deeper at times even though he was positioned as a left winger.
The first half for Barca was simply below their standards. The team dominated possession and created good passing links but all of this got them nowhere. Barca recorded four shots on target with their best chance coming from a Suarez miss after receiving a through ball from Vidal. And to make matters worse, Bilbao scored a goal off yet another poor aerial ball defensive miscue from Barca’s backline.
Without Messi, Barca were too predictable when in Bilbao’s defensive third.
Heading into the second half, Valverde had to change something to get the team going with purposeful passes and movement. He ultimately decided to bring on Busquets and Messi for Roberto and Vidal. The move to sub out Roberto was a logical decision by Valverde considering Roberto had suffered a minor injury in the opening minutes of the second half. Bringing in Messi was desperately needed but subbing out Vidal for him was a questionable move. Vidal’s role in the attack and defense had a substantial positive impact on Barca’s play. His ability to win aggressive challenges on the pitch and decisive passing in the middle third helped maintain the balance in the midfield. Although Vidal had his best performance as a Barca player, Valverde felt it was best to sub him out for Messi in order to facilitate more creativity when in the attacking third.
Even with the substitutions, Valverde did not completely change the setup or formation to suit Messi considering Coutinho, Suarez and Dembele were playing up front. Valverde had the option of moving the players around to revert back to his traditional starting lineup but elected not to.
With no setup changes, this meant that Messi would be positioned in the midfield. Messi occupied Vidal’s role as the right central midfielder but as he typically does when he plays as a winger, Messi drifted over to the middle.
See here how Barca were structured after the addition of Messi into the game.
As a central attacking midfielder, Messi had the freedom to roam inside. Since he played behind Coutinho, Suarez and Dembele, Messi had more time to survey his options and deliver through balls to either of the three. With his ability to exploit open space with his speed and dribbling skill set, Messi took advantage of it with every opportunity he received.
See here on this play how Messi receives the ball in space in the middle third. With Coutinho, Suarez and Dembele up front, Messi paces upfield but the play breaks down in seconds with six Bilbao players tracking back to defend.
With Messi playing more inside and with space to exploit, Barca began to play with more fluidity than in the opening 55 minutes of the game.
On this play, Messi is positioned as a central attacking midfielder and rather than force a pass to Coutinho or Suarez, he gets creative and links with Alba on the left side of the pitch. The end result sees Messi receiving a pass back and taking a shot that hits the post.
On this sequence, Barca were finally able to break through with a goal after Messi received a pass on the counter. He takes a shot, recovers the rebound, and delivers an assist to Munir, who was subbed in for Dembele.
After the goal, Barca continued to create goal-scoring chances but in the end, the game finished at a 1-1 draw.
Even in a situation where Barca dropped points for the third straight game, there are plenty of silver linings to be taken from the draw. In the time that he played, Vidal was arguably the most influential player on the pitch. Semedo was more involved in the attack compared to his last game against Girona. Although he was not tested as much, Roberto had a promising showing in his first start at the central defensive midfield position.
In contrast, Barca, primarily up until Messi entered the game, struggled to find any kind of creativity in the attacking third. As a result, Coutinho and Dembele were not put in positions to where they could utilize their speed to cut into the box.
The biggest takeaway from this game is that Valverde should carefully consider a possible formation change to a 4-2-3-1 if he is looking to abandon the 4-3-3. This formation would put Messi in situations to where he can exploit space inside and look to get the wingers involved. As seen in the 35 minutes that he played as a hybrid central attacking midfielder and right central midfielder, he is more comfortable when he links up with Suarez, Coutinho and Dembele.
Next up for Barcelona is an away Champions League group stage fixture against Tottenham.